House Appropriations Committee Goes Along With Effort To Allow Mining Around Grand Canyon National Park

Would expanded uranium mining on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park harm waters such as Deer Creek, which flows down to the Colorado River? Photo by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks used with permission.

Can uranium mining on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park generate enough economic activity to offset any potential contamination of the watersheds that drain into the national park and the Colorado River?

Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake thinks so.

The Republican was on the winning side Tuesday when the House Appropriations Committee held tight to an amendment he attached to the appropriations bill for the Interior Department that would prevent the Obama administration from placing a 20-year moratorium on hard-rock mining on 1 million acres surrounding the national park.

"Uranium mining outside of Grand Canyon National Park can create jobs and stimulate the economy in northern Arizona without jeopardizing the splendor and natural beauty within the park," the congressman said in a statement posted on his website. "That's why the proposed moratorium on new uranium claims is opposed by state and local officials in Arizona."

Now, Rep. Flake's comments about Arizona opposition to the moratorium isn't exactly accurate. Officials for the Central Arizona Project, which uses a 336-mile-long aqueduct system to provide water to nearly 80 percent of Arizona's 6.5 million residents, have expressed concern over uranium mining around the park in a joint letter cosigned by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"Protecting the Colorado River’s water quality is of paramount importance and, as such, the potential for degradation of Colorado River water quality through increased uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area is an issue of concern to the Partnership," reads the letter, which was sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in response to the BLM's draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed mining withdrawal.

"The DEIS for the Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal Project indicates that all of the alternatives evaluated would result in a negligible increase in uranium concentrations in the Colorado River over historical background levels," the letter goes on to say. "It should be noted, however, that the effects of increased mining within the subject area may affect consumer confidence over the safety and reliability of the Colorado River for its use as a municipal drinking water supply, irrespective of any definitive public health impacts. Considering the tragic aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the public has a heightened concern over the potential for even minute amounts of radiation in water supplies."

The funding bill has a ways to go before its passage is assured, needing to negotiate both the entire House of Representatives and the Senate. However, that gauntlet hasn't quieted opponents, who view the issue of expanding uranium mining around the Grand Canyon as terribly shortsighted and a significant threat not only to the surrounding ecosystems but to tourism at the national park.

The park generates nearly $690 million a year in tourism spending and supports more than 12,000 full-time jobs, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

"... the House Appropriations Committee voted to put mining special interests above the millions of visitors to the Grand Canyon," read a statement from Craig Obey, senior vice president for government affairs for the NPCA. "The rider, if enacted into law, would prevent the Interior Department from completing the work necessary to protect Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River from nearby uranium mining development and potential associated contamination.

“... With 2,200 uranium mining claims within 10 miles of the canyon, Congress can either choose mining interests or the generations of Americans who cherish this amazing place, the tourism industry and jobs that depend on it, and the millions of people who rely on the Colorado River as a clean source of drinking water,” he added.

Rep. Doc Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, sees the Interior bill as accomplishing "the difficult goal of ending runaway government spending while still providing funding to both protect and harness our nation's natural resources."

"... the bill prevents the Interior Department and EPA from carrying out several unilateral policy decisions that could lock-up American energy, harm our economies, and cost thousands of jobs throughout rural America," the Washington state Republican said.

That view was not shared by Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This bill must set a new record for destructiveness. Not only does it cut environmental programs by hundreds of millions of dollars below levels of more than a decade ago, it includes an unprecedented number of anti-environmental policy riders – provisions that do not reduce spending one cent but prevent the government from protecting our health and the environment as required by law," Mr. Slesinger said in a release.

“These riders not only block new safeguards; they roll back current law and make it harder to challenge government decisions. As a result, Americans will be exposed to more pollution, will have fewer open spaces and more endangered and extinct species.”